This holiday has something for everyone


By: Packet Editorial
   Nobody is entirely sure where or when the tradition of Memorial Day began. At least two dozen cities and towns — including Waterloo, N.Y., Boalsburg, Pa., Macon, Ga., Richmond, Va., and Carbondale, Ill. — lay claim to being the birthplace of this annual holiday. The practice of placing decorations on grave sites dates back at least to the time of the Aztecs, while the custom of setting aside a day to honor those who died in battle is attributed to the Athenian leader Pericles, who authorized a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Peloponnesian War some 24 centuries ago.
   But one thing about the history of Memorial Day is certain: It is the only federal holiday that owes its existence to the Civil War.
   The first official observance of what is now Memorial Day is generally acknowledged to have taken place in 1868, when Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, the head of an organization of former Union soldiers and sailors known as the Grand Army of the Republic, declared May 30 "Decoration Day," and called on the nation to decorate the graves of the war dead with flowers. The citizenry responded — though not exactly in the warm spirit of patriotic solidarity one might expect a national holiday to inspire.
   This was, after all, just three years after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. The hostilities had ceased, but not the air of hostility between North and South. So while Gen. Logan and his Grand Army were placing flowers on the graves of 20,000 Union casualties (and a few hundred Confederate fallen) at Arlington National Cemetery on May 30, 1868, the South pointedly refused to acknowledge the holiday.
   In fact, not only did the former Confederate states boycott the very first Decoration Day; they insisted on honoring their own war dead on separate days — and continued to do so for the next 50 years. Only after World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring just those who died fighting in the Civil War to honoring Americans who died fighting in any war, did the South grudgingly accept the existence of the May 30 holiday.
   In the meantime, Congress officially changed the name of Decoration Day to Memorial Day (1882), and subsequently changed the official date from May 30 to the last Monday in May (1971) to make it part of a three-day weekend. What has not changed is the tradition in the South of designating an additional, separate day for honoring the Confederate war dead: Jan. 19 in Texas, April 26 in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi; May 10 in North and South Carolina; and June 3 (Jefferson Davis’ birthday) in Louisiana and Tennessee.
   For those more conscious of fashion and climate than history, Memorial Day has traditionally been the occasion to take out the white shoes and pocketbooks, open the swimming pool, set up the backyard barbecue or, particularly here in New Jersey, head down to the shore in celebration of the informal start of the summer season (though summer doesn’t actually arrive for another four weeks). For sports enthusiasts, Memorial Day has long been synonymous with the Indianapolis 500. More recently, it usually finds the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team playing for the NCAA championship.
   And for those who keep an eye on the economy, Memorial Day is one of the year’s major milestones: Financial forecasters will be looking at everything from toll-road receipts to hotel and motel occupancy rates to retail sales over this holiday weekend for clues about where the nation’s economy is headed.
   So there’s a little something for everyone embodied in Memorial Day. It is at once a solemn occasion, a time to reflect on our nation’s sometimes troubled past and pay tribute to those who died in its service, and a cause for celebration, a weekend of parades and parties and poolside picnics welcoming the start of the summer season. However you plan to observe the holiday, may it be a safe and satisfying one.